When he was hired by the Oakland Public Library in 1996, Pete Villaseñor discovered that free tax preparation was offered at some of its branches through AARP Foundation Tax-Aide.
What particularly interested Villaseñor, now manager of the César E. Chávez Branch, was that tax preparation help was offered in Spanish and English.
For many years Villaseñor, 45, prepared his own tax returns — often ending up with discrepancies. That changed five years ago when he decided to try Tax-Aide.
"It is so much easier to go to Tax-Aide. I would definitely recommend it," he said. "Our Spanish-speaking patrons are especially grateful for the help in their first language."
Begun in 1968, Tax-Aide now has more than 35,000 volunteers helping roughly 2.6 million taxpayers at some 6,000 sites nationwide.
Last year, about 3,100 Tax-Aide volunteers served nearly 192,000 California taxpayers, who received $92.7 million in federal refunds and $25 million in state refunds.
This year, Tax-Aide runs from Feb. 1 to April 15.
The program targets low- to middle-income taxpayers with a focus on older people, said Helen Crisman, of San Carlos, the Tax-Aide Pacific regional coordinator.
"But we will take [almost] anyone who walks through the door," Crisman said, noting that volunteers do not prepare complicated returns.
What to bring to a center
All of the volunteer preparers receive about a week of training. They also must pass an IRS certification test annually.
Clients are asked to bring these documents to their Tax-Aide appointment: last year's tax returns; forms related to income from employment, pensions, annuities, Social Security, dividends or other sources; and canceled checks or other paperwork showing payment of state or federal taxes. If filing jointly, your spouse should also attend.
Duane Anderson, 90, has been using the program for four years at the senior citizen center in his hometown of San Carlos.
The professionalism and pleasant demeanor of the volunteers has kept him going back.
"They put you at ease. And I've never had a problem with the IRS," Anderson said.
Before taking advantage of Tax-Aide, Anderson would have his tax returns done professionally.
"I save $300 a year by going to Tax-Aide," he said.
The program makes a difference for people on a limited income, Crisman said. "It breaks my heart," to see people who can't afford it paying $100 to $200 to get their taxes prepared when they could come to Tax-Aide and get the same service for free.
Reaching out to Latinos
Even with nearly 500 Tax-Aide sites around the state, Crisman said, they are looking to expand. "We are gradually growing. And because of the economy, we are seeing more people who cannot afford to pay" professional tax preparers, she said.
The all-volunteer program relies on people like Orinda resident Mike Cunningham.
Two years into his retirement, Cunningham, 68, spotted a newspaper blurb that Tax-Aide was seeking individuals who could volunteer to prepare income tax returns.
It was a perfect fit for Cunningham, who had prepared his own tax returns and those of family members for years.
Crisman, who began as a Tax-Aide volunteer 18 years ago, understands the need to reach the ever-growing Latino community, and make them aware of this free program. Although Tax-Aide offers Spanish-speaking services at many centers, many Spanish-speaking taxpayers do not know about the program.
Villaseñor can attest to this.
"Every year I come across people who live in the neighborhood and are coming in to Tax-Aide for the first time because they didn't know about it," he said.
To find a Tax-Aide site near you, or to set up an appointment, enter your ZIP code at the Tax-Aide Locator or call AARP California at 866-448-3614 toll-free.
Vicki Adame is a bilingual writer based in San Jose, Calif.